May 1, 2018

Apprehensive volunteer builds houses ... and bridges

Written by  Barry Freed
Barry Freed on the job site in Saipan, North Mariana Islands with Mennonite Disaster Service. Photos provided by the author. Barry Freed on the job site in Saipan, North Mariana Islands with Mennonite Disaster Service. Photos provided by the author.

In 2015, an intense tropical typhoon named Soudelor hit the Northern Mariana Islands, a commonwealth of the U.S. in the Pacific Ocean, and caused extensive damage to the island of Saipan. I was oblivious to a place called Saipan, and the typhoon that devastated it, until I visited friends in Alabama a whole year later.

My friends, Jacob and Lynette Penner, credit Hurricane Ivan for bringing their lives together. He was a carpenter from Manitoba who arrived in Alabama -- one of many volunteers with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) responding to the need for rebuilding destroyed homes. She was a schoolteacher, enjoying life, but secretly waiting for the right guy to come along. Jake was the right guy.

Lynette and Jake told me about MDS's project in Saipan during one of our late-night talks on their porch. "We'd love to go help," Jake said. Lynette nodded, adding, "But we've got kids in school and this service option requires a three-week minimum commitment. There's just no way we can do it." Jake said, "But YOU could go!" In my head, I responded, "Me? Are you kidding?!"

I doubted I'd be a good fit for this type of work. I imagined that every MDS volunteer was a skilled carpenter who could probably build a whole house by themselves. I returned home from Alabama mulling over the challenge the Penners had left with me, bothered that I was still thinking about it.

I decided to let MDS's criteria for volunteers rule me out rather than ruling out the opportunity myself. I called the local MDS office. "You probably only want volunteers who are skilled laborers -- people who know what they're doing, right?" I suggested. The woman answered, "No, not only them. If you can help, you're welcome!"

So, MDS would accept me as an unskilled volunteer, but surely my boss wouldn't allow me to miss three weeks of work. Still not convinced I should pursue going to Saipan, I presented the opportunity to her quite gingerly. She exploded with enthusiasm. "I just heard about this from a friend over the weekend -- you should go!" she commanded.

When I arrived by myself in Saipan a few months later, I was warmly received by the small group of Canadian volunteers who had already been there two weeks. For most of the week, my head was foggy from jet lag. On the job site, I lacked a builder's knowledge and instinct for knowing what to do and how to do it. "Why am I here?" I wondered. My assigned mentor, a Paraguayan-born, German-speaking 80-year-old named Erich, was patient as he helped me gain familiarity with the tools. The week went by quickly, and I barely realized I had missed American Thanksgiving on Thursday.

That weekend, the Canadian men who had graciously taught me so much departed for home and new volunteers arrived to replace them. The new, larger group was geographically diverse and included people from California to New York. It wasn't a surprise to discover half of the new group was Plain Mennonites from Pennsylvania.

A Mennonite myself, it has always felt strange calling the more conservative Mennonites "Plain." However, these groups actually use the term to describe themselves. While we all have a common Mennonite heritage, shared tenets and values, our way of living and worship styles are different from one another.

Despite living nearly my whole life in a region well-populated by Plain Mennonites, I didn't know any of them personally anymore. Growing up, the closest Plain family to where I lived was the Wise family, who lived on a farm across the field. There, my parents bought eggs and were allowed to dip milk straight from the tank in the barn's milking parlor.

Mrs. Wise and the two daughters still at home, Esther Mae and Minerva, kept the house in order while Mr. Wise and Maynard, the youngest son, did the field work and milking. Being babysat at the Wise farm did not include playing video games, riding four-wheelers, or watching TV. It did include playing outside, sitting on a long, wooden bench at the table for lunch, and saying grace silently -- something quite different than what I was used to.

When I was about 12 years old, Mrs. Wise developed cancer and soon passed away. Eventually, with Mrs. Wise gone, our families gradually lost touch with each other. In the years since, my interaction with Plain people became limited to superficial conversations with the cashiers at local Mennonite-run stores.

Now, 7,000 miles from home in Saipan, one of the new MDS volunteers sitting across the breakfast table from me introduced himself as "Loren, from Lebanon County." I responded, "I'm from Lebanon, too. Where do you live?" He replied, "On a farm near Route 322, west of Quentin. My dad is Maynard Wise." And then it hit me -- this young man was the grandson of my mother's friend, Mrs. Wise. Loren was touched I'd known the grandmother he'd never met himself. We were instant friends and our families were connected once again.

The newly arrived group was relationally cohesive -- working, relaxing, and living in community well together, but there was stark diversity in the volunteers' spiritual expression. As the week went by, it became obvious that some volunteers had never met, or even known about, anyone quite like the others represented in the group. Because of my previous interaction with these various streams of expression, I became the "go-to guy" for volunteers wanting to know about the practices and beliefs of the others and helping them understand the significance and meaning of their ways.

"Why does she talk so much about the Holy Spirit?" "Why does she want to pray for me?" "What are 'tongues'?'" the Mennonite guys asked me about the volunteer from Idaho. "Why do they only pray silently?" The volunteer from Idaho asked me about the conservative Mennonites. "If you and Loren are from the same town, then why do you have such different accents from one another?" asked the volunteer from California.

I had originally questioned my personal contribution to the MDS project in Saipan, but before my three weeks of service came to a close, my new friends told me it was good I had been a part of the group. Not only was I an ambassador of Christ's love to the people of Saipan, they claimed I was a bridge builder within the group -- someone who understood and appreciated the different faith styles that had been brought together in that time and place.

In the time since my MDS service, I've been blessed by my reconnection with the Wise family and interaction with other conservative Mennonite youth I've come to know through my MDS experience. All in all, my faith has been strengthened by the journey of stepping into the unknown and being willing to do something that wasn't an obvious fit for me. I'm blessed by the wonderful new opportunities God has provided as a result of this obedience.

Barry Freed's first appointment with EMM was as a participant on the 1994 Trinidad and Tobago YES team. Since then, he has served on short- and long-term assignments to Lithuania. In his current role as Missionary Support Team (MST) Coach at EMM, he equips and encourages MSTs as they build and maintain support for workers on the field. He enjoys running, reading, playing volleyball, visiting others, road trips, and adventures to new places.

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